New York Introduces Restrictive Gun Control Mental Health Law
by Eric Wagner
Democrats in New York’s legislature are introducing even more gun control laws. After passing an Assault Weapons Ban in 2013, Democrats are now setting their sights on barring certain people from purchasing guns entirely. Assembly Bill A. 1589, introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Abinati and co-sponsored by 11 fellow Assembly Democrats, would require a mental health professional to evaluate a potential gun buyer’s mental state, and affirm that the individual is mentally fit to obtain said firearm. These are the main details, as the exceptionally vague bill delegates most of the substantive policy-making to the Commissioner of Mental Health.
This bill only states that a potential gun buyer must obtain approval of their mental state before purchasing a gun. The bill does not specify which mental health professionals are qualified to conduct these evaluations, and does not list a set of criteria to be assessed. Instead, the bill designates those substantive portions of the actual policy to be left to an un-elected, unaccountable executive agency. This delegation of legislative authority without any concrete direction is extremely dangerous, especially when dealing with something as sensitive as gun rights and mental health. Having appointed the current Commissioner, Governor Cuomo would be given wide discretion by the bill to decide what characteristics may categorically prevent someone from exercising their Second Amendment rights.
The bill also extends these requirements to all sales and transfers of firearms, whether they be through an FFL licensed dealer, or a person-to-person transaction. It even specifically ends any exemption for a transfer of a gun to an immediate family member. Under this bill, all transfers of guns, even from a parent to their son or daughter, would first require an approval from a mental health professional whose requirements have yet to be specified. Under this bill, if a father died and left his guns to his sons in his will, his sons would need to undergo a mental health evaluation from an unspecified official, screening for unspecified mental health concerns. In order to enforce this provision, New York State would need to expand the already onerous gun registration requirements to encompass all guns, to track person-to-person transfers.
The implications for mental healthcare in New York would be devastating. This bill has the potential to politicize and create distrust of mental health professionals. It would make these mental health professionals answerable to the government, violating the privacy rights of their patients and making these patients reticent to seek out mental health care. The bill does not specify whether or not a mental health professional can use prior knowledge of an individual to inform their assessment. This means potential gun buyers who previously sought treatment for a mental health condition could have their conditions used against them, preventing them from exercising their constitutional rights. This would be an extraordinary breakdown of the privacy protections necessary to a functioning mental healthcare system.
New York State already has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. This would be yet another hurdle imposed on law-abiding Americans who want to express their constitutionally-guaranteed right to bear arms. All Americans who want to purchase a gun from a licensed dealer are already subject to a federal background check, which screens for domestic violence convictions, felonies, illegal drug use, restraining orders, and dishonorable discharge from the military. Even more, federal background checks screen for people who have “been adjudicated as a mental defective” or people who have “ever been committed to a mental institution.” The federal background check already bars many people who do not have the appropriate mental state to possess a gun. The New York SAFE Act, in place since 2013, also already requires psychologists, physicians, registered nurses, and licensed clinical social workers to report when a patient “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others,” at which point, the patient’s handgun license may be revoked and their guns seized. This bill would add yet another sweeping restriction on top of that, without proper respect for due process or privacy. It would undoubtedly violate the second amendment to make it contingent on arbitrary criteria without proper protections.
Even with these severely burdensome restrictions, the bill wouldn’t even accomplish its goal. This bill’s exceptionally vague wording does not specify a reporting mechanism for whether or not a potential buyer is mentally fit to own a gun. Under the current wording, if someone were to be denied by an approved mental health professional, they could merely shop around until they found one who would approve them, and then visit a different gun seller with that approval. This bill would not actually screen out would-be mass shooters from obtaining guns. It would just take more time.
There are numerous flaws in this legislation which are readily apparent to anyone with even a tenuous knowledge of gun policy or mental health policy. Perhaps a lack of understanding of the issues at hand would explain why the bill was written in such a vague manner. Any one of these aforementioned reasons would be sufficient to oppose this bill. Together, these reasons make clear just how awful this bill is. This bill would be hopelessly ineffective at keeping guns out of the hands of people who are too dangerous to have them, all while infringing on several constitutional rights, ceding enormous amounts of power to an unaccountable executive agency, harming confidence in mental health care in this state, and excessively burdening law-abiding citizens.